Why A Roadtrip To Taos & Santa Fe Should Be On Everyone's Fall Bucket List
Plan your journey to the Land of Enchantment.
“This is not what I expected,” my boyfriend says to me as we wind along a dirt path, surrounded by muddy blue mountains in the distance and a stretch of plateau in the foreground dotted with deep green shrubs and prickly cacti. For those who have never traveled to The Land of Enchantment, you might anticipate a straight forward desert landscape. But not here — in northern New Mexico where Santa Fe and Taos lie, there’s diversity at every turn. Perhaps that’s why painter Georgia O’Keeffe fell in love with this corner of the world. “It’s something that’s in the air — it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different,” she explained in 1977.
This kind of ineffable beauty is best experienced with a car. Drive along scenic byways past villages and Spanish colonial churches, through high-elevation passes of Ponderosa Pines and Subalpine Firs, with stops at local food and indigenous craft vendors along the way. I started my road trip very differently than how I ended it, with a newfound appreciation for New Mexico’s charm and culture, and with a stomach full of chiles.
Ahead, a handy road trip guide to Santa Fe and Taos, with details on everything you need to know ahead of time including design-forward hotels, authentic Southwestern restaurants, and more.
There are two airports you can fly into: Santa Fe Regional Airport or Albuquerque International Sunport. I chose the latter as it had more nonstop options and flights were less expensive. From there, I rented my wheels through a car sharing marketplace company called Turo (I was anxious about straying from Hertz but the experience went without a hitch and ended up being far less expensive than a traditional rental brand). As with any countryside road trip, it’s important to keep an eye on the changing speed limits and to drive cautiously around sharp turns and through narrow roads.
Food & Beverage
The flavors of the Southwest are, in a word, vibrant. New Mexico’s regional ingredients like chile, beans, corn, and piñon (pine nuts) come together in a flavorful alchemy that makes each and every meal feel like its own culinary adventure. My first food stop was in the ghost town of Madrid while on The Turquoise Trail. I grabbed a green chile burger and fried okra at The Hollar, a spot opened in 2008 by Le Cordon Bleu graduate Josh Novak.
In Santa Fe, I stopped in at Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi for a tequila tasting, followed by dinner at Terra (order the piñon crusted lamb and wild mushrooms with polenta). Another highlight in Santa Fe is at SkyFire Restaurant where a Last Night In Oaxaca cocktail (mezcal reposado, chartreuse, maraschino, lime) is best paired with shrimp empanadas and stuffed squash blossoms. Over in Taos, the The Artesian restaurant in Ojo Caliente serves up a mean order of green chile fries and fajitas, and The Lounge by Rolling Still Distillery in downtown is not to be missed (their vodka infusions are a delight). If you need a coffee, World Cup is the spot and next door at Manzanita Market, the warm turkey and spiced fig jam sandwich tasted like Thanksgiving leftovers.
Indigenous Pueblo homes (also referred to as adobe architecture) is a signature style in the southwest and plays a prominent role in the enchantment of New Mexico. Driving along the winding roads with these earth-toned buildings blending into the natural surroundings was absolutely picturesque. One of the best examples of this architecture style is at Taos Pueblo, the only living Native American community that is designated as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a National Historic Landmark. Unfortunately, Taos Pueblo was closed when I was in town so I didn’t get to see it in person, but there were plenty of other examples, the Santuario de Chimayo and San Francisco de Asis Church being two of my favorites.
Art & Shopping
Indigenous artwork abounds in the southwest, with hundreds of galleries across Santa Fe and Taos and several locally owned shops selling artisanal goods like turquoise jewelry and paintings by Native American artists. The vintage landscape in New Mexico is also of note — Santa Fe Vintage and People of the Valley in Taos being two major callouts (I bought a pointed collar western shirt at the former and a straw hat at the latter). I also drove to a small village outside of Taos called Arroyo Seco and stopped in at Logan Wannamaker, which sells beautiful handcrafted pottery. This is what it’s like being in the Southwest — you wander up and down the wildflower-lined streets popping into little shops that each possess their own unique charm. It’s a shopper’s paradise!
The first hotel I checked into in Santa Fe was Bishop's Lodge, Auberge Resorts Collection. To get there, you drive three miles out of downtown and into the foothills of the mountains, away from the busy city streets and into a remote pocket of land. The property was settled over 150 years by Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamay and was recently restored so people like me and you can gawk in wonder at this breathtaking Southwestern landmark. Every aspect of this experience felt immersive, from the private Kiva fireplace in-room and on the private patio of my sky suite to the historic chapel on-property that was built in 1874.
The look and feel of the buildings also crafted this sense of immersion; the architect was Nunzio Marc DeSantis and the interior designer was HKS. This manifested in exposed wood beams, Navajo palettes, and artwork by local New Mexican artists. When I arrived, there was a light rain, so I lit up my fireplace and sipped on a glass of local wine from Vara. Once the clouds cleared, I wandered the grounds exploring their fly fishing center, 19th-century chapel, and historic stables where you can saddle up and set off on a horseback riding adventure. If ever there were a luxury place that captured the sense of the old west, it’s here.
In Taos, I lived out my pastoral farmland fantasy at Casa Gallina. This artisan inn is located just five minutes from the historic Taos Plaza but when you’re here, it’s stretches of land and majestic mountains as far as the eye can see. There are five casitas you can rent out here (I had ‘Bantam Roost’) and each one is decorated with hand-crafted furnishings, local art, antiques, and textiles; you can even buy the items in your respective casita, should you fall in love with a piece or two. This is the kind of place where you could come for a month and write a novel — it has an eat-in kitchen, a vegetable garden with fresh produce and fresh eggs from the on-property gaggle of chickens, and if you’re in need, there’s also high-speed internet and satellite TV (I resisted the temptation of at least one of these). My casita was 100-years old and had a second-story bedroom with a wood deck that had unreasonably beautiful views of the mountains. I’m already planning my solo artist’s retreat here because it’s just that good.
My second stay in Santa Fe was on 57 rolling acres in the Sangre de Cristo foothills at Four Seasons Rancho Encantado. The property is located just outside of downtown but feels tucked away in the wilderness. I flung open the doors to my casita and headed straight for the private patio, making a mental note of the beamed ceilings, Kiva fireplace, and Southwestern décor along the way. I could have sat and listened to the soft lull of birds and insects until the sun went down, but I was informed by staff at check-in that the best place to experience sunset was, in fact, at the restaurant. So there I went. I had seen a fellow travel writer post an Instagram about their Queso Azul Martini, so naturally I too ordered one (it didn’t disappoint). After a hearty dinner by executive chef Jose Fernandez, I slowly strolled back to my room and dialed up the property’s fire butler, who showed up with wood and matches and effortlessly set my Kiva fireplace ablaze.
Drive Along The Turquoise Trail
The Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway is around 50 miles long and links Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Once you get off the plane and into your rental car, this is the perfect immersion into the New Mexico landscape. I stopped in two old mining towns — Madrid and Cerrillos. Madrid’s history dates back to the 1800s, but once coal use declined, it became a ghost town. In the 1970s, a group of artists stepped in and converted abandoned stores and houses into shops and galleries, making it an eccentric stop along the trail with a unique backstory.
The Cerrillos mining district is one of the oldest and turquoise is still mined here. In its heyday, there were 21 saloons and four hotels. Now, Cerrillos offers a step back in time with its dirt streets, historic buildings, and authentic shops like the Casa Grande Trading Post that’s ran by Todd and Patricia Brown (they told me they’d owned it for 42 years). Inside you'll find an astonishing selection of jewelry, much of which is made with turquoise that they personally mine. Here, I bought ceramic tile coasters and a turquoise magnet. To plan your own day trip along The Turquoise Trail, their tourism site has all of the necessary info regarding stops, sites, and everything in between.
Explore The Historic City Of Santa Fe
Santa Fe was occupied by several Pueblo villages founded between 1050 and 1150, was settled by conquistador Don Pedro de Peralta between 1609 and 1610, and is the oldest capital city in the United States. Visitors who come here come for the history, the architecture, the culture, the food, and yes, the shopping. While in town, I did all of the above, though a few days is never enough to fully appreciate a city as unique as Santa Fe. Canyon Road is a great place to start your journey — this half-mile trail in the historic district has more than a hundred galleries and stores, with beautiful adobe buildings and old trees that drape over the sidewalk.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is not overrated, you should definitely go here and appreciate the diverse works they’ve curated to help chronicle the life and accomplishments of the iconic artist. Historic buildings to add to your itinerary include San Miguel Chapel, Palace of the Governors, The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, and Loretto Chapel, which has a spiral staircase that has been featured on Unsolved Mysteries thanks to its perplexing design (there are no visible means of support and it was built without nails, only wooden pegs). After all of that, unwind with a stroll around Santa Fe Plaza or if you happen to be in town on the weekend, spend a couple of hours at the Santa Fe Farmers Market for fresh produce and local artwork.
Take The High Road To Taos
Leave it to The Land of Enchantment to have not one, but two signature scenic byways to explore this picturesque northern region of the state. The High Road to Taos connects Santa Fe and Taos and runs 56 miles along a winding path through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The road is bookended by two iconic churches: San Francisco de Asis Church and Santuario de Chimayo (the latter is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage centers and a pristine example of Spanish Colonial architecture).
I also stumbled upon San Jose de Gracia Church in Las Trampas, which is a National Historic Site that was completed in 1780 (also one of the best preserved examples of Spanish Colonial Mission architecture). Beyond these church stops, much of my drive was spent pulling over at scenic lookouts to appreciate the diverse landscape you see on this route (it ran the gamut from wooded forest all the way to red rock high desert).
Unwind & Connect With Nature In Taos
Once I arrived in Taos, I understood why Georgia O’Keeffe was so fixated on this landscape. Blueish purple mountains towered over fields of sunflowers with rainbows and perfectly puffed-up clouds as accents. In essence, it was like living within a painting. My first order of business was at Ojo Caliente. This collection of natural hot springs is the home of one of the oldest health resorts in the country (it opened in 1868) and each of the pools are naturally sulfur-free and rich in iron, arsenic, soda, and lithia. I soaked in the eight different springs, like the Mud Pool where guests scoop a special clay blend from a gurgling fountain and smear it on their skin. I also had a private soak, which was tucked in a cliffside corner of the resort and came with a wood-burning Kiva fireplace.
After that, I met up with Taos Bee owner Moira O’Hanlon at her home to check out how she hand crafts her line of organic skin care (yes, I was slightly terrified when she told me I’d be tossing on a bee suit and getting up close and personal with the hive, but I came out unscathed and unstung). Downtown Taos is much smaller than Santa Fe, but it also has a historic plaza full of shops and restaurants where you can browse work by local artists. If you can plan ahead, Ghost Ranch in nearby Abiquiú is a bucket list experience for O’Keeffe fans (it was her studio and home) — it was sold out when I was there, giving me further justification to return. Also, if you’re craving a sweat and good view, the Italianos Canyon Trail is a locals-approved hike and a perfect way to meditate on a road trip well done.